Homeless in Abbotsford
Mike has had a place to live, but now he needs another one. And he needs a friend. “I did serious time in prison, but I have left crime behind me,” he says. He turns 60 in a few months.
Mike has lived for many months in a trailer in a corner of a farm, but the owner now wants to sell and Mike must move out. He cannot find a new place. “Even though I have been clean for a dozen years, I can’t rent an apartment,” he says. He feels like giving up.
On release from prison, he first lived in a tent in the bush, where scrounging food and living his life were hard. Then one day when he returned to his site in the rain, he found his tarp trashed. “I thought, ‘I can’t take it. I’m done.’” He was on the way to end his life when he ran into a pastor from South Abbotsford (MB) church. They talked – many times. Mike ultimately asked Christ into his life.
“Then, things started looking up,” says Mike. He found a place to live and went to a local auction for furniture. That led to a furniture ministry, locating and delivering furniture to people in need, often spending his own welfare funds. He also found donors of dated milk and bread that he could distribute.
However, that chapter seemed to end a few weeks ago. He now finds himself with no money, living under a deadline in a trailer to be sold. He is left with his dog and his old truck – and no hope. He has the welfare housing allowance, but the amount gives him few options.
Because he was in prison, he is repeatedly being turned away by landlords.
He struggles with medical problems. He does not speak of friends or a buddy.
Mike’s plight is quite typical of the kinds of issues that make up homelessness, according to Ron van Wyk, homelessness specialist for Mennonite Central Committee B.C. He says about 60 percent of those known to be homeless are men. About a quarter of the homeless are older than 50. Few have only one problem condition.
Van Wyk says most caseworkers and researchers recall relatively little homelessness in Canada before the mid-1990s. Until then, Canada had a national policy for social housing that was “quite effective in providing affordable housing to low-income earners.” Experts at the time warned that cancellation of the policy would create a serious problem of homelessness – and experience has proven that to be true.
To complicate the B.C. situation, the province’s drug epidemic occurred about the same time, and so did a provincial government decision to release many mental patients from centralized treatment to community care. B.C. housing prices started to soar at the same time, compounding the issues.
While governments came under increasing criticism from political opponents, many churches – and individual church members – stepped into the breach.
In Abbotsford, Northview (MB) Community Church made a significant capital contribution to open Cyrus Centre, a downtown facility with staff to provide transitional housing, psychosocial support and food to homeless people under 19.
More than a dozen other churches provide ongoing support.
The Abbotsford Salvation Army provides food for the homeless. It also built emergency and independent living facilities at their Centre of Hope (near the new MCC Centre). The Army added a staff psychologist and a social worker to ensure there is ongoing care.
The names of many facilities tell of their roots in Christian faith – Samaritan Inn, Psalm 23 Transition Society, Joshua House, programs in Menno Home, Tabor Home, and Seven Oaks Alliance Manor. Many other facilities reflect a community non-profit agency base.
“Not housing only”
MCC in Abbotsford prints a regular inventory of social housing. Jim Burkinshaw, of MCC, formerly with the trail-blazing Abbotsford Christian Leaders’ Network, says it’s only a list designed to help; MCC’s guiding principle remains “housing first, but not housing only.”
Underlining the need for broadened care, the 2014 survey shows only a quarter of Abbotsford’s homeless population utilizes shelters. The other three quarters do not, citing dislike of atmosphere, rules or other elements of the shelter experience.
A relatively new approach from the agency and volunteer sector involves renting a home and operating it like a boarding house, giving individuals their own room and some social setting.
One such house, “Tony’s Place” started as an experiment. No church could subsidize the cost, so a group of church members dug into their own pockets and kept the venture afloat for more than two years. Founder Tony and the supporters moved on, but the idea remains; now there are many such homes, and some landlords seek out agencies to provide tenants.
MCC is a recent sponsor of such housing – the eleventh unit to be acquired and operated by Raven’s Moon, a project started by two women who decided it was time to “do something.” Each sponsor underwrites the cost differences between welfare housing allowances and actual costs of operation.
MCC and Salvation Army also operate rental subsidy programs in Abbotsford, and MCC is adding to its casework staff.
The Salvation Army provides breakfast and lunch, and The 5 and 2 Ministries serves dinner on Wednesday evenings. MCC is planning to pick up the evening meal on other nights.
Meanwhile, van Wyk says it’s important to understand that those who are homeless must live with a variety of serious troubles, including profound poverty, substance abuse, hopelessness or mental illness. He says many of those troubles result from deep psychological scars arising from horrific abuse as children or even as adults, the kind of scars that people want to numb down.
The church is there. Individual Christians are there. So are many agencies and community workers. And some homeless people like Mike develop helping ministries of their own.
Despite the diversity of lives and problems, helpers and programs, there is one common comment surrounding the homeless issue: “It’s not enough. More help is needed.”
—Barrie McMaster, B.C. correspondent
See also “Problems of homelessness”
According to the ongoing study of homelessness in Abbotsford, B.C. by helping agencies, the numbers of homeless people (no permanent residence in the last 6 months) in the city:
2004 2008 2011 2014
226 235 117 151